In a complaint unsealed on Friday, whistle-blowers working on President Trump’s wall said that contractors were illegally bringing in Mexican guards to protect construction sites.
- Dec. 7, 2020
WASHINGTON — Two whistle-blowers have accused contractors building President Trump’s border wall of smuggling armed Mexican security teams into the United States to guard construction sites, even building an illegal dirt road to speed the operation, according to court documents unsealed by a federal judge on Friday.
The two employees, who were both contracted to provide security at the sites, accused the company, Sullivan Land Services Co., or S.L.S. — as well as a subcontractor, Ultimate Concrete of El Paso — of hiring workers who were not vetted by the United States government, overcharging for construction costs and making false statements about those actions.
The whistle-blowers said Ultimate Concrete went so far as to build a dirt road to expedite illegal border crossings to sites in San Diego, using construction vehicles to block security cameras. An unnamed supervisor at the Army Corps of Engineers approved the operation, according to a complaint filed in February and released on Friday.
Mr. Trump may have failed to make good on his 2016 promise to make Mexico pay for the wall, but if the accusations prove true, the administration apparently did rely on Mexican workers for the project, potentially at the expense of Americans.
The allegations came to light as data obtained by The New York Times showed that a border wall that Mr. Trump once advertised as “impenetrable” has continued to prove very penetrable. In fact, it has been repeatedly breached by migrants, requiring repairs that the whistle-blowers say were completed by workers who were not authorized by the government to be on the job.
Documents obtained by The Times through a Freedom of Information Act request show that Border Patrol agents have struggled to prevent migrants from breaching the wall, with one portion of the barriers in the Tucson, Ariz., sector breached as recently as September.
Between October 2019 and March 2020, the concrete bollards of the wall were breached more than 320 times in the Border Patrol sectors of San Diego; Tucson; El Centro, Calif.; and Yuma, Ariz., according to the documents. While Mr. Trump has constructed new segments in each of those areas, it is unclear whether all the breaches affected new portions of his wall or dilapidated barriers installed by previous administrations.
The Times could not independently verify the accusations, which were made by a former deputy sheriff in San Diego County and a former F.B.I. special agent providing security for the wall construction. The false claims act complaint was filed in the Southern District of California, allowing the federal government to investigate the allegations while they remained sealed and to decide whether to pursue the case. The Justice Department notified the court last week that it would not intervene in the case, prompting a judge to unseal the allegations. Federal law allows the whistle-blowers to continue to pursue the case “in the name of the United States” or, with the permission of the federal government, to seek a settlement or dismissal of the case.
Liz Rogers, a spokeswoman for S.L.S., said in a statement that the company did not comment on litigation. Jesse Guzman, the president of Ultimate Concrete, said in a phone interview on Monday that he was not aware of the complaint, but he dismissed the accusations.
“Everybody can allege whatever they want to, and that does not make it correct or make it the truth,” he said, adding that it was two security officers who were angry that “something didn’t go their way.”
A spokesman for U.S. Customs and Border Protection, Greg Davis, said the agency did not comment on litigation. “Lack of comment should not be construed as agreement or stipulation with any of the allegations,” he said.
One of the guards, who served as an on-site security manager for the contractors, told special agents with the F.B.I. that he had discovered through monthly audits of workers at the site in San Diego that many of the personnel working on construction and security were not vetted or approved by Customs and Border Protection.
S.L.S., a primary builder of Mr. Trump’s wall, has been awarded contracts worth more than $1.4 billion for work on multiple parts of the border. With those funds, the company is said to have allowed its subcontractor, Ultimate Concrete, to hire armed Mexicans and facilitate illegal border crossings that the president has worked to shut down.
Ultimate Concrete “constructed a dirt road that would allow access from the Mexican side of the border into the United States,” the whistle-blowers said in the complaint. “This U.C.-constructed road was apparently the route by which the armed Mexican nationals were unlawfully crossing into the United States.”
An S.L.S. project manager then pressured one of the whistle-blowers in July 2019 to not include information about the Mexican security guards in reports required to be submitted to the Army Corps of Engineers.
Border Patrol agents raised concerns that month about those Mexican guards to the security companies that one of the whistle-blowers worked for. When the whistle-blower discussed the concerns about Mexican guards working on the U.S. side of the border with an S.L.S. project manager, the company said the work by the Mexican guards was approved — a claim the whistle-blower rejected.
“What are you going to do about it?” the project manager said to the security officer, who filed the complaint.
About three weeks later, one of the whistle-blowers received a report about a shooting that had taken place between the Mexican security guards and others who crossed the border to steal property. One of the whistle-blowers sent a report on the shooting to the Army Corps.
Army Corps officials responded that they would investigate the episode and that the information was inconsistent with what Ultimate Concrete leaders had reported.
One of the whistle-blowers also said in the complaint that he had interviewed a witness who said the armed Mexican guards were working on the U.S. side of the border. Leaders for both contractors also admitted that they were aware of the Mexican guards working in the United States, with a representative from Ultimate Concrete claiming that he was “paying for the services of the Mexican guards.”
One of the security guards then reached out to the F.B.I. The Washington Post reported earlier that the F.B.I. was investigating the shooting at the construction site in San Diego last year that had wounded two of the Mexican security guards. The Post also reported that migrants had begun cutting through Mr. Trump’s wall in 2019.
The whistle-blowers also said in the complaint that Ultimate Concrete employees had submitted fraudulent invoices to the federal government. One of the whistle-blowers was told by an employee that a member of the company’s leadership, identified in the complaint as U.C. president, was “‘hiding’ the full extent of his profits on the Border Wall project,” in part by submitting false claims for diesel fuel, according to the complaint.
“If they were using a forklift, they would use it only sporadically throughout the day but charge the government for fuel, in sum and substance, ‘as if it was running all the time,’” the complaint said.
The whistle-blowers said in the complaint that at least one unnamed Army Corps supervisor, who later stepped down, was aware of the use of Mexican guards and had an inappropriate relationship with the leadership of Ultimate Concrete, often attending golf outings with “U.C. president.”
One of the whistle-blowers claimed to have told the Army Corps supervisor about concerns with the company, only to be told to “stand down.”
The Justice Department did not respond to requests for comment. Nicholas J. Lewin, a lawyer for one of the whistle-blowers, did not respond to requests for comment. Marc S. Harris, a lawyer for another security officer, declined to comment.
The employees also accused the companies of submitting fraudulent invoices for border wall costs and “hiding” the full profits of the project.
Seamus Hughes and Kitty Bennett contributed research.